Could it be that the greatest trick the Red Devils ever pulled was convincing the world that they're rubbish? Since the start of the season, journalists, pundits and some people actually worth listening to have been insisting that this is the worst Manchester United team since the days when Bros had numpties wearing bottle-tops in their shoes and Ralph Milne was king of the comedy circuit. And yet here they are, bearing down on the treble like a Phil Taylor dart.
Given that Roberto Mancini is perversely intent on infusing the richest club in the history of football with an inferiority complex, and Arsenal are the biggest bunch of chokers outside a jewellery store run for New Zealand rugby players, the Champions League now perhaps the only competition in which United are not favourites. Tonight they hope to oust Marseille and earn the right to join the seven teams praying to avoid Barcelona in the next round. But just look at their line-up! No Vidic and no Ferdinand means United's defence is perilously close to the one that was torn apart a few weeks ago by Dirk Kuyt, no less. And so is the midfield: Ferguson has clearly gone for experience here but runs an obvious risk of being overrun in the middle, especially as Didider Deschamps, perhaps anticipating Ferguson's selection, has moved Stephane Mbia from centreback into midfield. Mbia and Cheyrou have the wherewithal to give the elegant Lucho Gonzalez a central platform on which to probe.
Marseille's other significant change from the first leg, beyond the return of Andre-Pierre Gignac, is that Taye Taiwo has come in at left and he will provide a threat going forward, what with him possessing a shot like a supernova. But he's ropey defensively so Nani could get plenty of joy down his flank. Taiwo's inclusion also means that Heinze goes to centreback - which makes Ferguson's deployment of Hernandez especially wise, as the razor-sharp Mexican seems more likely than Berbatov to get the jump on the ageing Argentine. Andre Ayew against John O'Shea promises to be another fascinating duel. I foresee the French scoring at least once in this game, which, of course, means United would have to bag at least two. This could be a gripping affair. My money's on 2-2. But not very much of money.
United: Van der Sar; O'Shea, Smalling, Brown, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Hernandez, Rooney
Subs: Kuszczak, Berbatov, Fabio, Rafael, Valenica, Obertan, Gibson
OM: Mandanda; Fanni, Heinze, Diawara, Taiwo; Cheyrou, Mbia, Gonzalez; A Ayew, Gignac, Remy
Subs: Andrade, Hilton, Cisse, Kabore, J Ayew, Abriel, Valbuena
Referee: Carlos Carballo
A curious coincidence: I believe that Uefa's official referee observer tonight is a Belgian chap named Guy Goethals. He is the son of Raymond Goethals, who was the manager of Marseille in 1993, which was the one and only time that they won the Champions League.
Fabulous Ladies: Manchester United versus Olympique de Marseille sure sounds glamorous. But not, surely, as glamorous as this one. Best headline above a football match report for a long, long time.
7:30pm: Alex Ferguson is explaining to Sky that he chose O'Shea ahead of Rafael because, with Vidic out, United need height at the back because OM are a very big team. Ferguson also says that "we will take the game to them", while being wary of the counter-attack.
7:32pm: Steve McClaren is one of Sky's analysts tonight and he has some concerns about the lack of communication skills in United's defence. He says Brown, O'Shea and Smalling are all very quiet and "I don't know if Evra speaks English." But does he need to speak English: could he not just speak French with a heavy English accent, Schteve?
Graeme Souness reveals Javier Hernandez's pre-match diet: "He takes a pint of enthusiasm before going out," claims Souey. What does Berbatov take? A beaker of lethargy?
7:38pm: "Is Steve McLaren really serious (7.32pm)?" thudners Grace Pickering. "Evra's been playing in England for over five years and, quite clearly, speaks better and more articulate English than that numbskull Wayne Rooney."
7:41pm: The teams march out to tremendous acclaim, the thousands of bare-chested OM-supporting loons in the crowd making for an exceptionally boisterous atmosphere at Old Trafford.
7:44pm: Hush descends as players and fans mark one minute's silence in tribute to the victims of the Japan earthquake.
1 min: Marseille get the game under way. And I really must rpeat: the atmosphere here is fantastic (at Old Trafford, that is, not the Guardian's office, where, frankly, it's all a bit drab). "That's quite a headline you mentioned," coos Declan Johnston. "But my favourite still comes from an Women's U-19 international a few years back. Serbia & Montenegro (as they were then) beat Ireland, leading to the legendary Teletext headline: 'Irish women suffer S&M agony'!"
2 min: Intense boos for Heinze upon his first touch of the ball.
3 min: Marseille have had most of the ball so far but have never been at ease, United harassing them vigorously at every opportunity.
4 min: Rooney clips a nice ball over the top for Giggs, whose cross is deflected behind for a United corner.
GOAL! United 1-0 Marseille (Hernandez 5') Rooney sweeps a fine ball out wide to Giggs and then scampers into the box to receive the return pass. He then sends a cross-cum-shot across the six-yard box and Hernandez, as predicted, had eluded the attentions of Heinze and sidefoots easily into the net from close range.
8 min: What a miss! Ayew released Gignac with a marvellous flick and Gignac, the big galoot, aimed a woeful lob miles over the bar from 17 yards. Terrible option, worse execution. Meanwhile, this from George Hasenecz: "Was just checking the min-by-min from my desk at work here in the States and just have to ask: When did Nani take Rooney as a hostage and what are his demands?" Any ideas?
10 min: Rooney has been outstanding so far, popping up everywhere with classy consequences. He's just curled a sumptuous ball into the box, where it was received by Smalling, of all people. His control was less than exquisite and OM were able to scramble clear.
12 min: Rooney sends another raking pass towards Giggs. Cheyrou should deal with that one without any trouble ... but instead heads it behind for a corner. Which Marseille clear.
14 min: Gignac attempts to scurry past Smalling down the left. Gignac fails.
15 min: Evra is lucky to escape a booking for a nasty-looking late tackle on Gonzalez as OM threatened to counter-attack.
16 min: Dinky interplay by OM around the United area but then, at the crucial moment, Remy goofs with his final ball.
18 min: Giggs swings in a corner. Marseille clear again. In other news: Judging from your emails, some of you can't read my description of the goal. Please try to manually refresh, and let me know if that doesn't work.
19 min: Good play by United, who pinged the ball around before creating an opening for Giggs wide on the left. But the Welshman wafted a weak cross into Mandanda's arms.
20 min: Hernandez booked for clattering Heinze late.
22 min: United's are more dynamic than OM at the moment (but how long before they tire) and getting the ball back almost as soon as they lose it. And their plan once they secure possession seems to be to attempt to tear OM open with speedy long ball to either wing. It worked early doors but OM seem to have twigged it and are defending it better now.
24 min: Mandanda botches his kick-out, booting straight to nani about 35 yards. OM recover before any damage can be done.
25 min: Lucho is starting to find space "between the lines" for OM, which is dangerous for the home side. Just now the Argentine received the ball in front of United's back four and fizzed it wide to Ayew, whose cross was nutted away by Brown.
27 min: O'Shea takes a quick throw-in to Nani, who lets it run across his body and then blems the ball at goal from 25 yards. Three yards wide. "Ray Wilkins is on Sky cheering everyone on to get down to their niggliest," squawks Linda Howard. "He's mentioned 'going old school' with a spot of 'that's just proper defending'. He is also very focused on Rooney and Chicharito's movements. I can hear him drooling a bit when he speaks of the beauty of it. Who wouldn't want that kind of talk around their boys during training?"
30 min: After much United probing in front of Marseille, Taiwo intercepts ... and punts the ball downfield, giving United the ball back.
32 min: Discontent among the home fans as OM are given a freekick on the edge of the box (but surely from too acute an angle to shoot) after Smalling wins the ball off Gignac. Lucho will deliver from the left ...
33 min: Lucho's delivery - or was it an attempted shot? - was diabolical.
34 min: Gignac scampers into the box with the ball ... but was only able to do so because he slyly pulled back Brown. The ref was on to his wicked ways and awards United a free out. "Until I saw the photo at the top of the page I never realised that Nani and Rooney appeared together in The Shawshank Redemption," chortles Philip West. .
35 min: O'Shea dashes past Heinze and into the box ... he has options aplenty ... but he pulls the ball back behind all of his team-mates and OM can clear. Worse. O'Shea appears to have pulled his hamstring. He's off receiving treatment.
36 min: Another terrible miss by Marseille, who could conceivably be in front by now! After a shot corner Taiwo flighted a fine cross into the middle and Diawara met it full on from seven yards ... and somehow directed his header wide!
38 min: Again United's ploy of exploiting the fact that Taiwo's positioning isn't very clever pays divided. Rooney fired a splendid long pass over the Nigerian and Nani raced into the space to collect. Taiwo, though, recovered sufficiently to get the ball back.
39 min: Cheyrou has a bang from 25 yards ... Van der Sar palms it up in there and collects it when it comes back down.
40 min: Rooney charges into the box, wide on the left. He has players baying for a pass in the centre but elects to try his luck himself. Mandanda saves his low shot.
42 min: Nani collects an OM corner in his box and then flies downfield before playing a nice ball out to Giggs. The Welshman centres and Hernandez goes down in the vicinity of Taiwo - the crowd want a penalty! The ref is unmoved.
43 min: Marseille are still well in this game. And just as I write that, Remy provides powerful supporting evidence: after a cross is only partially cleared Remy rockets a volley fractionally over!
44 min: Superb tackle by Diawara to poke the ball away from Nani and concede a corner. Giggs delivers, Smalling meet it well but can't keep it down.
Half-time: A fine half. United came out all guns blazing but have been pegged back for much of the last 20 minutes and would have been behind if not for two appalling finishes by OM. The French are very much in this game, though United are alos looking menacing on the counter-attack. "Paul, am I right in thinking that Andre Ayew is the son of Abidi Pele, the ex-OM player," wonders Loig Thivend. Yes, as is Jordan Ayew, who's on the bench tonight.
Analysis from Eddie Munro "United's front three are exciting, pacey, immature, panicky. They keep losing possession which is putting pressure on the legs of Giggs and Scholes and the inexperienced/unfamiliar back four. Marseille will start the second half slow and lift the pace when United tire completely in the final 20 minutes. This game seems very similar to the 2-2 with Porto in 2009. Lucho was playing that night as well."
Souness and McLaren are damning of United's defending. "They've got to get their act together," rages the Scot. "People don't understand the importance of communication," shays Schteve.
Lots of questions in my inbox about Gignac, principally along the lines of: 'is he really as plop as he looks tonight?' He had one fantastic season with Toulouse two years ago, when he finished as Ligue 1 top scorer, and Deschamps lobbied hard to bring him to OM last summer. He was pretty awful there at first but after the winter break Deschamps moved him out to the left and made Brandao the fulcrum. Relieved of the responsibility of leading the line Gignac started to flourish. But then he got injured. And then Brandao got arrested, which is why Gignac is back as the main man up front tonight.
46 min: Ferguson, speaking to Sky, says United need another goal. Also says that O'Shea's absence (he has been replaced by Rafael) "gives us a height problem".
47 min: Quiet, scrappy start to the second period.
48 min: For the second time in the match Evra is lucky to escape a booking, again on Remy. He does not, however, escape scorn from the travelling fans.
49 min: Ayew flicks a long ball on at the edge of the United box. Van der Sar surges off his line to get to it nanoseconds before Gignac.
50 min: Marseille enjoying lots of possession. United keeping their shape and hoping to catch them on the counter.
52 min: The crowd are becoming quite jittery as OM start to slip into a nice, threatening passing rhythm.
53 min: Desperate appeals for a penalty from the home crowd as Diawara legitimately dispossesses Evra, who could have crossed before that.
55 min: United have realised that they need to play more in OM's half, so that's what they're doing. Nani and Rafael are beginning to combine well down the right.
56 min: Rooney sends a well-intentioned pass over the top for Giggs. Mandanda, reading the danger, races off his line to intercept.
57 min: Superb tackle by Heinze to thwart Rooney after the striker had dodged his way past two defenders in the box and was shaping to sidefoot the ball to Hernandez.
59 min: Good defending by Smalling twice in quick succession, as he cut out dangerous attempted through-balls from Ayew.
60 min: Remy effortlessly beats Giggs down the right and works himself into a promising crossing position. But he reprieves United by failing to pick out a team-mate.
62 min: Wonderful pass by Rooney in behind Taiwo. Nani scampers after it. But the Nigerian is quicker and gets to it first. And that is Nani's last involvement, as he comes off to be replaced by Valencia.
63 min: Hilarious ineptitude by Brown to concede a corner, and nearly an own goal. He got himself in a right old tangle when attempting to clear an Ayew cross. Heinze meets the corner but nods way wide.
64 min: Rooney should shoot from the edge of the box ... but chickens out and pass wide to Valencia instead. The winger's cross is deflected up in the air so Valencia follows it and gets a shot off, but Mandanda has hurtled out and blocked it from close range.
Right-back knack II: Following O'Shea exit earlier in the game, Rafael seems to have suffered the same problem. He's holding his hamstring and seems set to come off. Fabio is warming up.
66 min: Once again OM get in behind United and once again their final ball is woeful. They really should be level. At least.
68 min: The pressure from OM is mounting, but still the fatal final ball eludes them. This time it was Remy who spooned it into Van der Sar's hands as several team-mates awaited better service in the box.
69 min: Marseille change: Gignac off, Valbuena on. The little conjurer (that's Valbuena) will play wide on the right, meaning Remy will shift into the middle.
70 min: United change: Rafael off, Fabio on. I think.
72 min: Remy makes a fool of Smalling ... and then himself, again botching his pass when a good one would have provided OM with a great chance to equalise. "This is a very difficult period for Manchester United," blubs Ray Wilkins from the gantry.
73 min: Valbuena booked for catching Brown a tad late. Evra twice got away with tackles worse than that.
74 min: Lovely work by Scholes to wriggle his way free and then slip a ball into Valencia, whose cross does not do justice to the build-up.
74 min: Remy jinks and dashes down the right and then - at last - serves a decent cross. Cheyrou, arriving late in the box, sidefoots it goalwards from 12 yards. Van der Sar gets down well to stop it.
GOAL! United 2-0 Marseille (Hernandez 75') And that is the sort of supreme predatory play that Marseille have been missing. Valencia flipped a fine ball through to Giggs, who slid a perfect low cross into the six-yard box and Hernandez, as is his wont, again got the jump on the defenders and tapped into the net. Signing of the season, that lad.
78 min: Poor clearance by Evra seized upon By Fanni, who skips past Rooney and then fires one low and hard at Van der Sar from 16 yards.
80 min: Rooney sticks one behind Diawara for Hernandez to chase. The Mexican does just that, getting to it first and pulling back a decent ball. Heinze sees no other choice than do put it behind for a corner.
81 min: Desperate to respect my pre-match prediction of 2-2, Deschamps hauls off Mbia and throws on another attacker ... and another Ayew. Jordan is on.
GOAL! United 2-1 Marseille (Brown og 82') Brown tries to head away a lovely in-swinging corner from Valbuena .. but instead heads into his own goal.
83 min: United are nervous. And they weren't hellped just now by Rooney, who in attempting a spectacular clearance actually looped the ball into his own box. Brown tidies up, unlike a moment ago.
85 min: Rooney - "a man for the big occasion" gushes Sky's commentator - sends a piddler into the keeper's arms from 25 yards.
86 min: A decidedly jittery Ray Wilkins has pointed out - rightly - that there should be a lot of stoppage time here. Because there have been a lot of stoppages this half. Could Fergie time undo United?
88 min: United are keeping the ball well here, trying to see the game out. "So Brown heads into his own goal from a corner ... are United trying to play like Barcelona?" scoffs Robin Hazlehurst. If they get through this - and that remains a significant if - they will be tonked by Barcelona, should they come up against them.
90 min: The fourth official indicates only four minutes stoppage time.
90+2 min: Danger in the United box following a fine cross by Fanni. But Valencia had got back and did well to head clear. "As a United fan who's watched every game this season, I can finally say it feels like Rooney is back," hurrahs Kulver Taggar. "Even after his wonder-goal against City, he was still playing badly with a heavy touch. I don't think he's played like this since his injury last season against Bayern."
90+3 min: Remy booked for grabbing Smalling's shirt in an attempt to nick the ball off him and give himself a chance to run clear on goal. Good decision by the ref.
Full-time: "Manchester United march on!" hollers Sky's commentator but United did not march, they staggered. Hernandez was the difference, showing the supreme poacher's instinct that Marseille lacked to give United the victory even though the visitors created the better chances. Marseille will be kicking themselves .. and probably missing.
That's all, folks. Thanks for your time and your mails. Please call again. Preferably same time tomorrow, for Real v Lyon.